4.25.10 sermon notes

Psalm 23

On a rainy Saturday afternoon, I have been known to enjoy a cheesy romantic comedy.  I refuse to call them “chick-flicks” because we all know there are plenty of men who enjoy these too.  We all know the plot of so many of these movies: There are two friends who have known each other for years, and all of a sudden one realizes that they are madly in love with the other.  This person who had been there all along is all of a sudden “the one.”  That which was so familiar is all of a sudden seen w/new eyes. I love these kinds of stories, cheesy though they may be.

We’ve heard a lot of Psalm 23 this morning in various voices. And I hope that you have heard this all-too-familiar psalm in a new way – through the sung words, and in our various translations.  KJV is most familiar, even to folks like me who did not grow up w/that particular translation in worship each Sunday.  If you ask anyone to recite it from memory, those are probably the words they would use. . . .  So we have heard the psalm in new words, but what new perspective could I possibly offer on this text? Don’t we all know what it means?  Or is there more to it than we think?

When you ask most people about Psalm 23, they recall memories of hospital rooms or funerals or other difficult times when the psalmist’s words provided much-needed comfort.  It points to the powerful promises of God’s presence with us in the most dire of situations.  And that is good news.

But I worry that we might read this all-too-familiar psalm a little too comfortably.  It is too easy to arrive at an idea that “the Lord’s sheep do not need anything. They spend their days lying in green pastures. They wander beside quiet, placid lakes and walk along straight paths — paths of righteousness that might be interpreted as paths with justified margins. The rod and staff of the shepherd protect the sheep and a pleasant table awaits them when they’re hungry.”

It is a lovely scene — until we also notice that the paths of righteousness could mean the ways of justice. Or until we notice that the poem also talks about walking fearlessly through valleys that are like night, filled with deep shadows. Or until we notice that the table spread with abundant food also happens to be surrounded by enemies. Then the country scene takes on a more ominous cast and is no longer quite so pleasant to contemplate. The sheep in the psalm become more complicated creatures. They have a double consciousness: they believe in the shepherd’s providence, but that belief does not blind them to the terrors that await them along the ways of justice. It begins to look more like radical trust than blind obedience.  . . . Perhaps this psalm could even be read as an invitation for us to take risks as people of faith.

One pastor said they like to think of the word “because” added at the beginning of this psalm, which I think makes it interesting.  “Because the Lord is my shepherd, I need nothing more.  Because the Lord is my shepherd, I go into dangerous situations with confidence. Because the Lord is my shepherd, I do not let fear dominate my life.  It is not just a reminder of God’s presence in the face of adversity (although it is that too). But could we not also hear these words as a call to radical discipleship, to take chances for the sake of God’s reign of righteousness?  To live unafraid. To seek life abundantly for all of God’s creation.

During our Call to Worship, we sang a beautiful paraphrase of part of this Psalm: “Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.”  We proclaim that the Lord is our shepherd yet we continue to seek ways for the military, our economic status, our laws to protect us. From what?  What do we fear?  As Walter Breuggemannn notes, “The world believes that we are finally in the grip of death. So we spend our frightened energy trying to stay young and be healthy. We use our money to secure our existence. We work frantically to establish our worth. We are propelled by fearfulness that evokes violence and produces policies of exclusion, aggression, and militarism.”

When we allow our wants and fears to control us, we are following in the ways of death.  But when we live beyond them, then we are truly alive. That is what it means to practice resurrection.  Jesus Christ is risen, why are we staying in our tombs?  When we seek justice; when we love with the boundless love of God; when we proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ not just in our pulpits but through our actions; when we take risks for the sake of the gospel, we are practicing resurrection.  We are living boldly in the face of death.

Now, this is scary stuff.  But it is part of what we are called to do and be as the church of Jesus Christ.  Even our Presbyterian Book of Order, not exactly a document known to inspire many of us, contains these challenging words about the risks we are called to take as the body of Christ:  “The Church is called to undertake its mission even at the risk of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of life, sharing the gospel, and doing those deeds in the world that point beyond themselves to the new reality in Christ” (Book of Order, G-3.0400). If I were to offer my own paraphrase of this, it would be: “Ok church: It’s not about you. It’s about God revealed in Jesus Christ. Stop playing it so safe, and start doing things that proclaim the gospel.”  New life in the resurrected Christ calls us to respond, to act, to take risks.  And Psalm 23 reminds us that God is with us.  This knowledge allows us to be faithful and courageous in sharing the love of God with others (and not just with other sheep who look and think like we do).

We Christians often talk of Jesus as our shepherd, and this Psalm beautifully connects with that image.  And just as the shepherd in the Psalm leads the sheep through some dangerous valleys and right in the presence of their enemies, Jesus leads his followers into some uncomfortable places.  He certainly did things contrary to the ways of the world and embodied the boundless love of God in all that he did.  So if we have a radical kind of shepherd, why shouldn’t we be radical kinds of sheep?

“Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life.”  What would it look like for you to live free of your wants — beyond your fears? What new possibilities does it offer for you?  What opportunities does it open up for us here at Northminster?  And what might that look like for us as a denomination?  How are we undertaking our mission of bringing the good news of Jesus Christ and sharing God’s radical love and inclusion with others?  Is the church doing this even at the risk of losing its life?  Or have we gotten a little too comfortable, played it a little too safe?

The good news in all of this is that God provides. God who is shepherd is also the gracious host, who sets an abundant feast before us in the face of our enemies.  God nurtures all of us, especially when we are in distress.  To be near God is to be fed.  And as our gospel lesson from last week reminded us: being fed is important.  But it is not an end in and of itself, as if we Christians are just supposed to sit around fat and happy.  We are fed so that we can feed others.  So Jesus, our radical shepherd, calls us to be radical sheep.  And it is because the Lord is our shepherd that we can live and serve faithfully and confidently – taking risks for the sake of God’s reign of righteousness.

I want to close w/one more take on Psalm 23, this one written by a fellow pastor:

God, you are Holy, and so I call you Holy One. You are all I need, I require nothing else.

I am invited to rest and drink in all the love, compassion, and healing my soul needs.

I am renewed. I am ready to travel, beyond the walls of my own home and my church into the communities in which I find myself.

Even though I may meet people who wear different clothes or speak languages I do not understand…I will not fear. God is in these people too.

I may meet people who have lost their jobs and are angry, but I will not fear. God is in these people too.

Just as God has fed me, so may I feed people who are hungry, whether they are members of this church, live in this community, or are just traveling through. Hungry for bread, hungry for justice, hungry for a word of compassion. Starved for someone to care about who they are and where their life has been lived. It is in those times, my life overflows in gratitude and I am full in a way I have never been before.

God has been following, leading, guiding, and providing all these days…and I would not want to live any other place, than in this wide open space called God.


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